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  • Donna Straver

The questionable effectiveness of climate summits

Intergovernmental cooperation never goes with ease. Whether it is between two states trying to establish a trade agreement, or nearly 200 states trying to solve the climate crisis. That being said, in the 90s there was a lot of faith in international solutions and treaties. Around that time, global warming became more prevalent as an issue worsened by humans. The UN instigated a body of climate scientists to evaluate and report on the state of climate, which released its first assessment report in 1990: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With the increased awareness came a desire to make formal plans and agreements to tackle global warming. Again, cooperation with hundreds of states is not something that happens easily. To make it somewhat easier, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was established and came into effect in 1994. The UNFCCC held their first meeting, a Convention of the Parties (COP 1), in Berlin in 1995. Now, more than 25 years later, and climate change is a more prominent problem than ever, what has actually come from these conventions on climate change?


In the two years after COP 21, an agreement called the Kyoto Protocol was reached and went into force in 2005. It operationalizes the UNFCCC, with the main focus on industrialized countries and economies in transition and their contribution to climate change. The key objective was for those states to reduce their greenhouse gasses emissions, and to report periodically about their progress. The countries who are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change were part of the non-Annex I list. These states were not seen responsible for the condition of the climate, although they could get funding for investment and technological improvements. This idea was based on the principle of the UNFCCC regarding “common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. The non Annex I and II parties would be less responsible and economically capable of action against global warming. This idea was highly debated. It makes sense for the parties who hold the most blame for global warming and have the economic capabilities, to also be the ones who do the most to tackle it first hand. That being said, some questioned if this did not just let certain nations off the hook just because they have ‘developing’ status, therefore limiting the effect the protocol could have. China is one of the non-Annex states, which, ironically enough, has become one of the biggest polluters in the world.


This was also a critique of, among others, the US. They saw it as unfair that the Kyoto Protocol only included the Annex I countries, and not the developing nations. There were more things wrong with the protocol. For example, although in theory the protocol might have been legally binding, it never actually was. Two years after Kyoto went into effect, reports were showing that most participants failed to meet the targets, little consequences followed. Next to that, even if countries did fulfill their dues, the effects would be slim, as the US did not ratify the treaty and China, as a non-Annex state, was by the protocol not even expected to change its behavior. While the effects and effectiveness of Kyoto were highly debatable, at the COP in Doha of 2012, it was agreed to extend it until 2020 (this decision, however, was not supported by the US, China, Russia, and Canada). Nonetheless, there was already a desire to create a new legally binding climate treaty. The COP in Bali in 2007 already set the groundwork for this. It established a timetable for negotiations to reach a new international agreement. In 2011, at the COP of Durban, South Africa, the ambition for a Kyoto replacement was planned for 2015 with implementation in 2020. It would require the reduction of greenhouse-gas- and carbon dioxide emissions by the Kyoto Protocol participants and the major polluting countries that were exempt before such as China, India, and the US.


This treaty did come about in 2015, and we all know it as the Paris Agreement, a legally binding treaty signed by all 196 Parties at the Conference. The UN describes it as “a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects''. The main goal is limiting global warming to under two degrees Celsius. It contains fourteen articles all specifying a goal or ambition. It puts emphasis on national responsibility and how National Adaptation Plans should be implemented. These plans would then be reviewed by experts. Therefore, they express the importance of transparency in a separate article of the Paris Agreement. The treaty entered into force on 4 November 2016. After the slight failure of the Kyoto Protocol, one can wonder how effective its replacement is, even if it is more encompassing.


In an academic paper by Raiser, Kornek, Flachsland, and Lamb created a systematic outline for the evidence of the effectiveness of the Paris Agreement (Raiser, 2020). They distinguish between institutional and environmental effectiveness. Focussing on the environmental effectiveness, it is obvious that it relies on the member states and non-state actors to meet their climate targets. Currently, there is simply too little ambition within states to actually combat climate change on the level which is needed to level with the Paris Agreement goals. Raiser et al. name as possible reason the decline of the US as a primary actor and funding facilitator within this battle against global warming. At the time that Raiser et al. wrote their analysis, 2020, Donald Trump formally withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. When Joe Biden entered into office, he immediately signed them back into it. With Biden as president, the US has showcased the will to act as a main player again in the battle against climate change. This could contribute to the ambition of other states, as it might liquidate the tiring reasoning of “what we do has no effect as long as great states are doing nothing”.


Going back to the Paris Agreement, it is seen as a normative shift where all countries agreed and recognized the need for action that goes beyond the state. It opened new doors for the approach to climate change with regards to, for example, Human Rights, climate related migration etcetera. Furthermore, it boosts innovation adding to the likelihood of sometime meeting the set goals. But because in practice these agreements are never really effectively legally binding, a lot of national ambition is needed to actually achieve the climate goals. It appears as though this ambition is lacking in societies and governments. This might stem from the fact that we are enduring multiple crises and global warming is often put on the stack of things to deal with later. The undeniable and inevitable truth is, however, that if we do not achieve this below two degrees Celsius threshold, irreversible climate disasters will continue to take place. Loss and Damage, already an article of the Paris Agreement and more important than ever, was one of the biggest debating points of this year's COP 27 in Egypt. It was agreed that bigger sums of money are needed to help these vulnerable states rebuild from the destruction global warming has caused them. This was a big win for the poorer countries, who have been advocating for a repair fund for more than thirty years. Another crucial issue that was debated at the COP, concerns the global financial system and its role in the tackling of global warming. However, a real move forward in terms of ambition for climate action, in the form of targets and materialization of certain goals (lowering of greenhouse gasses, reducing coal consumption, etc.), were not finalized or discussed enough at this COP. Therefore, a lot of work is again shifted to the next COP, showcasing the never ending cycle of delaying and debates that get nowhere.


The Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement were seen as diplomatic achievements, and they might have been, but not because of their great results for their initial goals. We need to review the UNFCCC’s effectiveness not in terms of groundbreaking diplomatic victories, but in their actual accomplishments. Of course, they did not have zero effect, and formal recognition is crucial. Still, solely recognition and setting targets is not going to stop global warming. Goals need to be materialized to actually reach these targets. Whether it is in the form of increasing the prices of air travel, or sustainable energy sources. That being said, states seem to lack this ambition, so direction and specific actions proposed by the UNFCCC, could be useful in this regard. Adding to that, the voluntary nature of the Paris agreement is not enough, as there will always be states who are not doing enough, regardless of set goals or given direction. Incentives are needed for states to start abiding by and live up to the rules and goals they themselves agreed upon. The remaining question is where this incentive should come from, this should therefore be the top priority next year.


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